“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” — Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Brutality and unjust murder by law enforcement has remained a common occurrence in America for some time. Videos and stories documenting police misconduct have been circulating in recent history, largely involving the mistreatment of Black individuals. With each new incident, both activists and those seemingly opposed to antiblack racism have used their platforms to hold police accountable and bring about systemic change. Unfortunately, events spanning the bulk of 2020 give one evidence to believe that the fight for justice has not gone far.
This year alone, law enforcement has claimed the lives of several unarmed or cooperating individuals, chiefly Black, including Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, David McAfee, Rayshard Brooks, James Porter Garcia, Dijon Kizzee, and Daniel Prude. Floyd’s murder, caught on video, was seemingly a breaking point, leading to mass protests throughout America and beyond. Activism and advocacy efforts have largely focused on police reform and ending systemic racism altogether.
The need for change has also inspired highly visible entities such as the NBA, which received much attention for highlighting racial inequality, spreading messages about social justice, and, after the shooting of Jacob Blake, leading the charge on boycotting games among professional athletes. While the NBA has made strides to show support for and lend their voices toward the fight against systemic racism and more, garnering much praise and admiration, these actions are not novel. The truth of the matter is their female counterparts in the WNBA have been taking stances such as this, oftentimes with consequences, for several years. Though activism and advocacy are nothing to compete over, one should acknowledge the efforts of professional women’s basketball in spreading awareness about specific causes and potentially laying down the blueprint for future agents of change.
Activism in the WNBA spans several years, beginning in July 2016 when prior to a game players from the Minnesota Lynx wore warmup shirts honoring Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, two Black men murdered by police, as well as five Dallas officers who were seemingly killed in retaliation for their deaths. Prior to tip-off, Minnesota’s Maya Moore and Rebekkah Brunson made statements highlighting racial profiling and unjust violence. That same month, players on the Phoenix Mercury, New York Liberty, and Indiana Fever wore shirts during warmups saying both “#BlackLivesMatter” and “#Dallas5,” acknowledging the same issues as the Lynx. However, this action resulted in the WNBA issuing fines against each team and all players involved for breaking a league rule prohibiting the alteration of team uniforms.
Players protested these fines via social media posts throughout July and, in the case of both the Liberty and Fever, staged a media blackout, refusing to answer any basketball-related questions and instead focusing on social justice reform. This act of solidarity resulted in the league rescinding their financial penalties.
Later that year in September, players from both the Fever and Mercury knelt as the National Anthem played during a playoff game. This decision was made around the same time former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick began kneeling to raise awareness for social justice and racial inequality. A similar stance was taken prior to game 1 of the WNBA Finals in 2017, where the Los Angeles Sparks stayed in their locker room during the National Anthem.
Activism among WNBA players has not been limited to just visual and vocal displays of support. This year ahead of the WNBA season, both the league and Women’s National Basketball Players Association (WNBPA) launched The Justice Movement and created the WNBA/WNBPA Social Justice Council. The Social Justice Council specifically focuses on addressing issues surrounding race, voting rights, gun control, and the LGBTQIA+ community, along with other societal problems.
Individual players have also made huge sacrifices to help marginalized groups and bring about systemic change in America. For the past two WNBA seasons, beginning in 2019, Moore, a star player for the Lynx, took a break from playing to focus on racial justice issues. This year, she managed to help free Jonathan Irons, a Black man, from prison after serving 23 years for a crime he did not commit. Considering the many protests focused on ending police brutality and systemic racism, several WNBA players have also chosen to do advocacy work and sit out the entire 2020 season. Players include Renee Montgomery and Tiffany Hayes of the Atlanta Dream and Natasha Cloud of the Washington Mystics, who was integral to their 2019 WNBA Championship win.
Pay for play
There are often costs to activism and advocacy work. These costs might include a stain on one’s reputation, loss of time, or an impact on finances. For WNBA players, financial burdens have been a major cause for concern. In recent years, some players have played overseas following the end of a season due to their inadequate WNBA salaries. This decision places wear and tear on the body and has at times caused issues. In 2019, Seattle Storm forward Breanna Stewart suffered a ruptured right Achilles tendon while playing in the EuroLeague. Ahead of the 2019 WNBA season, Stewart was the reigning league MVP and helped lead the Storm to a championship.
At the time of Stewart’s injury, she made a base salary of $56,793 but earned more from being league MVP, the Storm’s championship, and her All-Star Game appearance. Fortunately, at the start of 2020 the WNBA approved a new collective bargaining agreement which raises the base salary to $130,000 in addition to creating extra bonuses and prize pools to increase the total compensation received by players. Amid these changes, players have continued advocating for systemic change and spreading awareness about racial inequality.
Insult to injury
Adding to their financial struggles, WNBA players have often been neglected and disrespected by onlookers, many of whom can be found on social media. In late August this year ESPN featured a video via YouTube detailing Cloud and her fight for social justice during 2020. At one point through tears she speaks about the unjust murders of Black individuals by law enforcement and her conversations with some of the victim’s families. To date this video has a similar like to dislike ratio, coupled with vile and sexist comments, one of which reads “Are they gonna explain who this is and why anyone should care that she’s sitting out in a YMCA caliber league?”
Last year, Stewart expressed her displeasure via Twitter concerning the lack of media coverage surrounding the WNBA Finals. Moreover, after the Mystics were crowned champions of the 2019 WNBA Finals, handlers of the Washington Capitals’ Twitter account ignored their victory and instead congratulated both the Capitals for their 2018 Stanley Cup win and Washington Nationals for securing their first ever World Series championship. Cloud took issue with how this tweet ignored the Mystics, given their shared connection to Washington and the fact that both the Mystics and Capitals are owned by the same person.
Amira Rose Davis, professor of history and African American studies at Penn State, described WNBA players as gritty and used to criticism. She furthermore insisted gender, race, and sexual orientation all factor into their neglect and disrespect. Therefore, the league’s players have always been outspoken due to necessity.
Fighting for justice and the rights of underprivileged groups, especially when sacrifice occurs, is commendable. Boasting about such actions, however, is unnecessary since helping others should be a basic human trait. Still, what WNBA players have exhibited over several years is admirable, considering their issues with discrimination, sexism, and pay rates. Additionally, one could look to their activism and advocacy as a blueprint for how to truly stand up against injustices in America.